February 07, 2012

Security detail

Adam Jensen, the protagonist of Deus Ex: Human Revolution is a fearsome guy. He is, by all measures, thoroughly superhuman.

He can hack into any computer, security robot or surveillance camera. He can withstand sustained fire from any source. He breathes poison gas like it was nothing, and can jump higher, run faster and punch harder than any human ever has before him.

But there is something even Mr. Jensen is afraid of: Keyboards. Nothing hinders his advance quite like a keyboard, which he is forced to jab, one key at a time, like it was the first time using such a device. And who knows, maybe it is, judging by the difficulty I’ve been having with them in the game.

I suspect the PC version of the game allows typing passwords and codes via the player’s own keyboard. The PS3 version, however, forces the player to input everything via an on-screen keyboard, one character at a time. And nothing is more frustrating than trying to punch in a long password one key at a time when a security patrol is right around the corner.

I’m frankly somewhat baffled why the game doesn’t include an option to bypass the typing altogether, something along the lines of “press key to enter code”. Jensen simply cannot be as clumsy with keyboards as he is made out to be. It feels very out of character when a player has to input everything like they were spelling out a trainer’s name in Pok√©mon. It breaks immersion to have this superhuman character sweat over little typos, worrying over long passwords. It’s weird that the best security feature in the world of Deus Ex is a really long password. Hell, given the option of logging in with a password or hacking my way into a system, I almost always choose hacking because it’s less trouble.

And it doesn’t stop there. When you make a mistake while typing a passcode, you can select backspace on the on-screen keyboard and correct your mistake. But when you need to erase something while writing a password, the only option is to use L2 on the controller. This breaks the immersion even further.

The game has you thinking keyboards are diegetic, part of the game world. You accept the clumsy interface because it’s “realistic” in the context of the game world. Yet with this one little detail the game switches to an external input mode and reminds the player that yes, there are numerous non-diegetic ways to influence the world. Sure, pressing L2 to erase is a lot easier than tap-tap-tapping the cursor over to yet another on-screen key. But it’s exactly that little hint of usability that highlights the inconvenience of the rest of the input experience.

It’s a minuscule detail, of course, but it’s nevertheless in stark contrast with the techno-centric world of Deus Ex. Adam Jensen, the biomechanical Jesus that he is, is humbled in front of the de facto human–computer interface of the world. Keyboards must’ve been the prevalent input method for the whole of Jensen’s life, and it still takes several seconds for him to write something as simple as “Unicorn”.

Maybe there’s subtext here, about the emergent interface paradigms human augmentation is rapidly bringing forth in the world of Deus Ex. Maybe underlining the limited accessibility of older technology suits the themes of Human Revolution.

But it’s still annoying.